Ask a typical MBA applicant the most important determinant of admissibility to business school, and you’re likely to hear “GMAT score” (along with a lengthy commentary about how hard the exam is, how it doesn’t predict success in the business world, and/or other reasons why the GMAT is the worst threat to modern civilization since Pokemon). And, in fairness, the GMAT is definitely an important component of the MBA application—it’s applied uniformly to all applicants and gives the admissions committee some level of comfort with the applicant’s quantitative and verbal problem solving abilities. However, while GMAT scores are positively correlated with academic success in business school (particularly in quantitative courses), they give little insight into important characteristics of the applicant. Most business schools employ a holistic admissions process and are looking for evidence of the following traits in their applicant pool.
Not all MBA applicants have extensive work experience, and that’s ok. So, rather than looking at the quantity of work and other experiences, I look for evidence that the applicant has made an impact in their professional, social and volunteer endeavors. In essays and letters of recommendation, I’m looking for specific, tangible actions the applicant has taken which has improved or enhanced the situation that existed prior to the applicant’s involvement with the organization. If I have a choice between an applicant who has simply showed up to work for five years vs. one with no professional work experience but who started a successful charity in college, I’m going to look very closely at the potential of the younger, less experienced applicant. Tip: Be sure your application highlights the impact of the organizations you have been affiliated with. Simply listing a bunch of clubs, charities and jobs won’t cut it. It’s particularly helpful if the letters of recommendation reinforce these themes.
Business schools train future leaders, and one of the most important traits of good leaders is a strong character. We want to know that someday you will be a proud representative of our program—not an all-too-familiar headline about an unethical business leader ruining an organization. Honesty and integrity throughout the application process is paramount. Even white lies and small misrepresentations on your application can hurt your admissibility. People who fabricate letters of recommendation or hire someone else to write their admissions essays are almost always denied if caught. Tip: Use the essays to discuss a difficult ethical situation you’ve faced in the past. Explain the problem, as well as your thought process, the actions you took, and the results of your actions.
Business leaders aren’t test-taking robots. They need respond to ever-changing market conditions and motivate, train and manage diverse teams (often across multiple time zones). Both oral and written communication skills are of upmost importance during the application process, in business school, and—most importantly—in your post-MBA career. Use your application to demonstrate your ability to clearly tell your story in writing, and ensure that during all of your conversations with the admissions office (phone calls, recruiting events, and interviews) you speak in a polite, professional and articulate manner. Tip: Bringing samples of previous work product (particularly written communications) to your MBA interview can be very helpful to the admissions committee.
As someone who has read over 1,000 MBA applications, I can tell you firsthand that incorporating these elements into your application helps the admissions committee gain a more holistic perspective of each applicant and may improve your chances of admission and/or a scholarship.